Urbanization, climate change and flood policy in the United States


The average annual cost of floods in the United States has been estimated at about $2 billion (current US dollars). The federal government, through the creation of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), has assumed responsibility for mitigating the societal and economic impacts of flooding by establishing a national policy that provides subsidized flood insurance. Increased flood costs during the past two decades have made the NFIP operate at a deficit. This paper argues that our current understanding of climate change and of the sensitivity of the urban environment to floods call for changes to the flood policy scheme. Conclusions are drawn on specific examples from cities along the heavily urbanized corridor of northeastern United States. Mesoscale and global models along with urbanization and economic growth statistics are used to provide insights and recommendations for future flood costs under different emissions scenarios. Mesoscale modeling and future projections from global models suggest, for example, that under a high emissions scenario, New York City could experience almost twice as many days of extreme precipitation that cause flood damage and are disruptive to business as today. The results of the paper suggest that annual flood costs in the United States will increase sharply by the end of the 21st Century, ranging from about $7 to $19 billion current US dollars, depending on the economic growth rate and the emissions scenarios. Hydrologic, hydraulic and other related uncertainties are addressed and a revised version of the NFIP is suggested.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Access options

Buy single article

Instant unlimited access to the full article PDF.

US$ 39.95

Price includes VAT for USA

Subscribe to journal

Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.

US$ 199

This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.


  1. Bates PD, Wilson MD, Horritt MS, Mason DC, Holden N, Currie A (2006) Reach scale floodplain inundation dynamics observed using airborne synthetic aperture radar imagery: data analysis and modelling. J Hydrol 328(1–2):306–318

  2. Changnon SA (1980) Summer flooding at Chicago and possible relationships to ubran-increased heavy rainfall. Water Resour Bull 16(2):323–325

  3. Changnon SA (2008) Assessment of flood losses in the United States. J Contemp Water Res Educ 138(1):38–44

  4. Changnon SA, Westcott NE (2002) Heavy rainstorms in Chicago: increasing frequency, altered impacts, and future implications. J Am Water Resour Assoc 38(5):1467–1475

  5. Changnon SA, Kunkel KE, Andsager K (2001) Causes for record high flood losses in the Central United States. Water Int 26(2):223–230

  6. Chen F, Dudhia J (2001) Coupling an advanced land surface-hydrology model with the Penn State-NCAR MM5 modeling system. Part I: model implementation and sensitivity. Mon Weather Rev 129(4):569–585

  7. Collier CG (2007) Flash flood forecasting: what are the limits of predictability? Q J R Meteorol Soc 133(622):3–23

  8. Downton MW, Pielke RA (2000) Precipitation and damaging floods: trends in the United States, 1932–97. J Climate 13(20):3625–3637

  9. Droegemeier KK, Smith JD, Businger S, Doswell IC, Doyle J, Duffy C, Foufoula-Georgiou E, Graziano T, James LD, Krajewski V, LeMone M, Lettenmaier D, Mass C, Pielke R, Ray P, Rutledge S, Schaake J, Zipser E (2000) Hydrological aspects of weather prediction and flood warnings: report of the ninth prospectus development team of the US weather research program. Bull Am Meteorol Soc 88(11):2665–2680

  10. FEMA (2005) A chronology of major events affecting the National Flood Insurance Program beginning with the year 1824 through January 2006. Technical report, American Institutes for Research, Washington, DC

  11. Gallus WA Jr, Bresch JF (2006) Comparison of impacts of WRF dynamic core, physics package, and initial conditions on warm season rainfall forecasts. Mon Weather Rev 134(9):2632–2641

  12. GAO (1994) Flood insurance: financial resources may not be sufficient to meet future expected losses. Technical report GAO/RCED-94-80

  13. Goldenberg SB, Landsea CW, Mestas-Nuñez AM, Gray WM (2001) The recent increase in Atlantic hurricane activity: causes and implications. Science 293(5529):474–479

  14. Gualdi S, Scoccimarro E, Navarra A (2008) Changes in tropical cyclone activity due to global warming: results from a high-resolution coupled general circulation model. J Climate 21(20):5204–5228

  15. Gumley LE, King MD (1995) Remote-sensing of flooding in the US upper midwest the summer of 1993. Bull Am Meteorol Soc 76(6):933–943

  16. Hobbs F, Stoops N (2002) Demographic trends in the 20th century. Technical report CENSR-4, US Census Bureau, Washington, DC

  17. Hoyt WG, Langbein WB (1955) Floods. Princeton University Press, Princeton

  18. Hudgens D (1999) Adapting the National Flood Insurance Program to relative sea level rise. Coast Manage 27(4):367–375

  19. IPCC (2007a) Climate change 2007. In: Solomon S, Qin D, Manning M, Chen Z, Marquis M, Averyt K, Tignor M, Miller H (eds) Summary for policymakers. The physical science Basis. Contribution of working group I to the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  20. IPCC (2007b) Climate change 2007. In: Parry M, Canziani O, Palutikof J, van der Linden P, Hanson C (eds) Summary for policymakers. Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. Contribution of working group II to the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  21. Jankov I, Gallus JWA, Segal M, Shaw B, Koch SE (2005) The impact of different WRF model physical parameterizations and their interactions on warm season MCS rainfall. Weather Forecast 20(6):1048–1060

  22. Javier JRN, Smith JA, Meierdiercks KL, Baeck ML, Miller AJ (2007) Flash flood forecasting for small urban watersheds in the Baltimore metropolitan region. Weather Forecast 22(6):1331–1344

  23. Jin ML, Dickinson RE, Zhang DL (2005) The footprint of urban areas on global climate as characterized by MODIS. J Climate 18(10):1551–1565

  24. Kain JS, Weiss SJ, Levit JJ, Baldwin ME, Bright DR (2006) Examination of convection-allowing configurations of the WRF model for the prediction of severe convective weather: the SPC/NSSL Spring Program 2004. Weather Forecast 21(2):167–181

  25. Knuston TR, Sirutis JJ, Garner ST, Vecchi GA, Held IM (2008) Simulated reduction in Atlantic hurricane frequency under twenty-first-century warming conditions. Nature Geoscience 1(6):359–364

  26. Kunkel KE, Peilke RA, Changnon SA (1999) Temporal fluctuations in weather and climate extreme that cause economic and human health impacts: a review. Bull Am Meteorol Soc 80(6):1077–1098

  27. Leopold LB (1968) Hydrology for urban planning—a guidebook on the hydrologic of urban land use. Professional paper 669, US Geological Survey

  28. Loaiciga HA, Valdes JB, Vogel R, Garvey J, Schwarz H (1996) Global warming and the hydrologic cycle. J Hydrol 174:83–127

  29. Lowry WP (1998) Urban effects on precipitation amount. Progr Phys Geogr 22:477–520

  30. Meehl GA, Zwiers F, Evans J, Knutson T, Mearns L, Whetton P (2000) Trends in extreme weather and climate events: issues related to modelling extremes in projections of future climate change. Bull Am Meteorol Soc 81(3):427–436

  31. Mesinger F (1996) Improvements in quantitative precipitation forecasts with the ETA regional model at the National Centers for Environmental Prediction: the 48-km upgrade. Bull Am Meteorol Soc 77(11):2637–2649

  32. Mills E (2005) Insurance in a climate of change. Science 309:1040–1044

  33. Milly PCD, Wetherald RT, Dunne KA, Delworth TL (2002) Increasing risk of great floods in a changing climate. Nature 415(6871):514–517

  34. Milly PCD, Dunne KA, Vecchia AV (2005) Global pattern trends in streamflow and water availability in a changing climate. Nature 438(7066):347–350

  35. Milly PCD, Betancourt J, Flakenmark M, Hirsch RM, Kundzewicz ZW, Lettenmaier DP, Stouffer RJ (2008) Climate change—stationarity is dead: whither water management? Science 319(5863):573–574

  36. Morgan AE (1951) The Miami conservancy district. McGraw-Hill, New York

  37. Myers MF, White GF (1993) The challenge of the Mississippi flood. Environment 35(10):6

  38. Nelson PA, Smith JA, Miller AJ (2006) Evolution of channel morphology and hydrologic response in an urbanizing drainage basin. Earth Surf Processes Landf 31(9):1063–1079

  39. NFIP (2002) Program description. Report, Federal Emergency Management Agency

  40. Nijhuis A (2006) Lessons learned from flood defence in the Netherlands. Irrig Drain 55:S121–S132

  41. Ntelekos AA, Smith JA, Krajewski WF (2007) Climatological analyses of thunderstorms and flash floods in the Baltimore metropolitan region. J Hydrometeorol 8(1):88–101

  42. Ntelekos AA, Smith JA, Baeck ML, Krajewski WF, Miller AJ, Goska R (2008) Extreme hydrometeorological events and the urban environment: dissecting the 7 July 2004 thunderstorm over the Baltimore, MD metropolitan region. Water Resour Res 44(8):Art no W08446

  43. Ntelekos AA, Smith JA, Donner L, Fast JD, Gustafson JWI, Chapman EG, Krajewski WF (2009) The effects of aerosols on intense convective precipitation in the Northeasern US. Q J R Meteorol Soc 135:1367–1391

  44. Nyberg J, Malmgren BA, Winter A, Jury MR, Kilbourne KH, Quinn TM (2007) Low Atlantic hurricane activity in the 1970s and 1980s compared to the past 270 years. Nature 447(7145):698–U11

  45. O’Connor JE, Costa JE (2003) Large floods in the United States: where they happen and why. US Geologucal Survey Circular 1245, USGS

  46. O’Connor JE, Costa JE (2004) The world’s largest flood, past and present: their causes and magnitudes. US Geologucal Survey Circular 1254, USGS

  47. Ogden FL, Sharif HO, Senarath SUS, Smith JA, Baeck ML, Richardson JR (2000) Hydrologic analysis of the Fort Collins, Colorado, flash flood of 1997. J Hydrol 228(1–2):82–100

  48. Oppenheimer M (2005) Defining dangerous anthropogenic interference: the role of science, the limits of science. Risk Anal 25(6):1399–1407

  49. Otkin JA, Greenwald TJ (2008) Comparison of WRF model-simulated and MODIS-derived cloud data. Mon Weather Rev 136(6):1957–1970

  50. Pielke RA Jr (2000) Nine fallacies of floods. Clim Change 42(2):413–438

  51. Pielke RA, Downton MW (2000) Precipitation and damaging floods: trends in th United States, 1932–97. J Climate 13(20):3625–3637

  52. Pielke RA Jr, Downton MW, Miller JZB (2002) Flood damage in the United States, 1996–2000: a reanalysis of National Weather Service estimates. Report, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO, USA

  53. Rogers E, Black TL, Deaven DG, DiMego GJ, Zhao Q, Baldwin M, Junker NW, Lin Y (1996) Changes to the operational “early” Eta analysis/forecast system at the National Centers for Environmental Prediction. J Climate 9(9):2093–2109

  54. Samuels P, Klijn F, Dijkman J (2006) An analysis of the current practice of policies on river flood risk management in different countries. Irrig Drain 55:S141–S150

  55. Sender EG (2007) August 8, 2007 storm report. Executive summary, Metropolitan Transportation Authority

  56. Sharif HO, Yates D, Roberts R, Mueller C (2006) The use of an automated nowcasting system to forecast flash floods in an urban watershed. J Hydrometeorol 7(1):190–202

  57. Shepherd JM (2005) A review of the current investigations of urban-induced rainfall and recommendations for the future. Earth Interact 9(12):1–27

  58. Shepherd JM, Burian SJ (2003) Detection of urban-induced rainfall anomalies in a major coastal city. Earth Interact 7(4):1–17

  59. Skamarock WC, Klemp JB, Dudhia J, Gill DO, Barker DM, Wang W, Powers JG (2007) A description of the advanced research WRF version 2. Technical note 468+STR, National Centers for Atmospheric Research

  60. Smith JA, Baeck ML, Morrison JE, Sturdevant-Rees P, Turner-Gillespie DF, Bates PD (2002) The regional hydrology of extreme floods in an urbanizing drainage. J Hydrometeorol 3(3):267–282

  61. Smith JA, Baeck ML, Meierdiercks KL, Nelson PA, Miller AJ, Holland EJ (2005a) Field studies of the storm event hydrologic response in an urbanizing watershed. Water Resour Res 41(10):W10413(15)

  62. Smith JA, Miller AJ, Baeck ML, Nelson PA, Fisher GT, Meierdiercks KL (2005b) Extraordinary flood repsonse of a small urban watershed to short-duration convective rainfall. J Hydrometeorol 6(5):599–617

  63. Smith JA, Baeck ML, Meierdiercks KL, Miller AJ, Krajewski WF (2007) Radar rainfall estimation for flash flood forecasting in small urban watersheds. Adv Water Resour 30(10):2087–2097

  64. Stern N (2006) Short executive summary: Stern review report of the economics of climate change. Technical report, HM Treasury. Available at:

  65. Sun Y, Solomon S, Dai A, Portmann WW (2007) How often will it rain? J Climate 20(19):4801–4818

  66. Sylves R, Kershaw PJ (2004) Reducing future flood losses. The role of human actions. National Research Council, Washington DC, pp 1–17

  67. United Nations (2006) World population prospects: the 2006 revision—analytical report, vol III. Technical report no 263

  68. Vecchi GA, Knuston TR (2008) On estimates of historical north Atlantic tropical cyclone activity. J Climate 21(14):3580–3600

  69. Vecchi GA, Soden BJ (2007) Effect of remote sea surface temperature change on tropical cyclone potential intensity. Nature 450(7172):1066–U9

  70. Vecchi GA, Swanson KL, Soden BJ (2008) Climate change whither hurricane activity? Science 322(5902):687–689

  71. Vieux BE, Bedient PB (1998) Estimation of rainfall for flood prediction from WSR-88D reflectivity: a case study, 17–18 October 1994. Weather Forecast 13(2):407–415

  72. Villarini G, Smith JA, Serinaldi F, Bales J, Bates PD (2009) Flood frequency analysis for nonstationary annual peak records in an urban drainage basin. Adv Water Resour 32(8):1255–1266

  73. White GF (1945) Human adjustement to floods: a geographical approach to the flood problem in the United States. PhD dissertation, The University of Chicago, Department of Geography

  74. Wilcox EM, Donner LJ (2007) The frequency of extreme rain events in satellite rain-rate and an atmospheric general circulation model. J Climate 20(1):53–69

Download references

Author information

Correspondence to Alexandros A. Ntelekos.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Ntelekos, A.A., Oppenheimer, M., Smith, J.A. et al. Urbanization, climate change and flood policy in the United States. Climatic Change 103, 597–616 (2010) doi:10.1007/s10584-009-9789-6

Download citation


  • Flood Risk
  • Flood Damage
  • Tropical Cyclone Activity
  • Flood Insurance
  • Flood Loss